English translation: The Passport, translated by Martin Chalmers, London: Serpent’s Tail, 1989
Book review by UC Berkeley undergraduate Preethi Kandhalu:
The Passport is a novel by Herta Müller that was published in 1986; Müller was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009. The novel was later translated into English by Serpent’s Tail – a publishing firm – in 1989. The Passport presents the story of Windisch, a miller who lives in the Socialist Republic of Romania with his wife and daughter, Amalie, who is in a desperate quest to acquire a passport to emigrate to West Germany with his family. The novel’s historical context is explicitly stated when Amalie, a kindergarten teacher, says while pointing to a map of Romania, “Comrade Nicolae Ceausescu is the General Secretary of our country, the Socialist Republic of Romania.”, which was between 1967 and 1989.
The style of writing throughout Müller’s novel reflect the bleak and hopeless nature of life in Romania during Ceausescu’s regime – the short sentences filled with surreal imagination that, most of the time, don’t make sense in context with each other reflect the mundane and confusing life of Windisch. An example of such painful disorientation is visible when the night watchman describes his dream – “I dreamt of the dry frog. I was dead tired. And I couldn’t get to sleep. The earth frog was lying in bed. I was talking to my wife.”
This mundane nature of life catalyzes Windisch’s desire to acquire a passport. Against his ethical values, Windisch bribes the militiaman and also the mayor with sacks of flour from the mill, however the paperwork can only be processed when his daughter, Amalie, has sex with the priest and the militiaman. Windisch’s contempt towards the state of affairs is externalized when he displays a fit of anger for the first time in the novel – he spits into the sand and exclaims, “It’s disgusting, the shame of it”. Also, the irony of Amalie having to sleep with the Church and the militia alludes to the corrupt nature of the government and the Church, since these institutions are supposed to protect and serve the people.
The issues portrayed in the novel – Windisch’s desperate quest towards acquiring a passport to immigrate to West Germany – ties in with general concepts we’ve been discussing in the “Multicultural Germany” class as well. Following WWII, foreigners started coming to Germany in search of better opportunities and also due to political oppression in their home country. We see a similar scenario in the movie “Almanya: Willkommen in Deutschland” directed by Yasemin Şamdereli – a Turkish man goes to Germany due to better opportunities as a guest worker and supports his family back home in Turkey for a while. Windisch’s quest to emigrate to West Germany during Ceausescu’s regime is in line with history concerning immigration in Germany. One statistic from the book “Germany in Transit” edited by Deniz Gökturk, David Gramling, Anton Kaes, states that in 1988, “the number of ethnic Germans leaving Eastern Europe to settle in West Germany continues to rise: 202,645 come in 1988”